The opening acts of the 21st century have fundamentally challenged long-held notions of military power. The past decade has unveiled not only the disruptive power of terrorist groups with global reach, but also the ability of low-budget insurgent groups to directly confront the best military forces of the West -- with surprising success. Moreover, recent revolutionary events across the Arab world have demonstrated the limits of military power when facing mass popular uprisings. Disorder, chaos and violent extremism seem on course to replace state-on-state violence as the most common forms of conflict in the new century. Given this new security environment, the U.S. military must begin to play a larger role in conflict prevention in order to fully realize its value, commensurate with its cost, in this new disorderly world.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- launched not with tanks, warplanes or intercontinental missiles, but with commercial airliners -- were the most deadly assaults on U.S. soil since the American Civil War. Unconventional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have also rattled the conventions of military thought, as insurgents equipped with inexpensive weaponry have inflicted prolonged attrition on U.S. forces. The U.S. military has spent billions of dollars defending against these new, low-cost threats, but the West and its military thinkers are still grappling with the full security implications of these dramatic upheavals in traditional military power balances. The era of asymmetric warfare has arrived with a vengeance.
Recent revolutionary events in the Arab world -- starting in Tunisia and rapidly spreading to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain -- have further highlighted today's shifting balance of power. While the outcome of these upheavals is still unclear, they reflect a new sort of asymmetrical power wielded by popular movements and expressed through mass street demonstrations. These spontaneous movements -- organized and enabled by modern technologies such as cellphones, Twitter and Facebook -- have directly challenged the "hard power" of state militaries, albeit with mixed results to date. Yet at the same time, the West's hard-power reponse to the Libyan regime's harsh backlash against its people has further demonstrated that conventional military power remains a powerful tool -- in this case employed to enforce the will of the broader international community as expressed by U.N. resolutions.